Is home-schooling a wise move for children? Sunday Times May 25, 2008

Is home-schooling a wise move for children?
Home-schooling is becoming more popular with parents, but is it a wise move for children? Amanda Blinkhorn and Graeme Whitcroft
Imagine a summer term with no exams, no revision to force your children to stay indoors , no dangling of Asprey carats as a reward for 11 A*s at GCSE.

For the growing number of parents who teach their children at home, part of the pay-off for opting out of formal education is a stretch of golden afternoons, when lessons can be taken in the garden and there are no pesky tests to take the shine off the summer.

The novelist Michelle Magorian, who for the last nine years has taught her son George, now 14, at the kitchen table of their home in Hampshire, freely admits that one reason she turned her back on schooling was her alarm at the way the system examines pupils almost to destruction.

Her decision was reinforced when teachers used to take her aside during visits to schools to talk about her novels, and and tell her she was doing the right thing. “They are under such pressure to teach to the tests, that they do not have time to teach their subject properly. What is going on in these schools?” she said.

Magorian, who was infuriated to see extracts from her novel Goodnight Mister Tom used as an exam comprehension exercise, is not alone. As many as 50,000 children are taught at home in this country, and their number seems to have trebled since 1999. The relief involved in escaping the pressures of both testing and playground bullying is a constant refrain. Home-schooling, it appears, is no longer a “hippy” option, but one pursued by otherwise conformist middle-class families.

It’s a phenomenon that is sounding alarm bells among many, including education expert Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University, who warns that some children risk being denied social as well as educational opportunities. While researchers say that home-schooled children are on average two years ahead of their peers, critics claim a quarter receive an inadequate education.

“Although some home-schooled children have excelled in one or two subjects, with some going to Oxford as young as 12, going to school is about much more than this,” said Smithers. “In school you discover how to rub along with others and that you have to learn even if you don’t feel like it. That is a basis for life.” Home-schooling, he warned, could leave children, especially shy ones, isolated and struggling to cope as adults.

But advocates see things differently. With four children, aged two to nine years old, Radio 2 broadcaster Janey Lee Grace and her husband Simon, a composer, seem unlikely candidates for home-schooling. “Oddly enough, Simon and I had both loved school, so it wasn’t as if we were set against it,” said Lee Grace, speaking from her home in St Albans, Hert-fordshire. “We just didn’t think it was the best option for our children.”

Five years later, and despite working three days a week co-hosting the Steve Wright show, she still feels the same, though she almost gave up when her fourth child, Lulu, now two, was born. “There weren’t enough hours in the day, and I felt we needed to think about school. But Simon talked me out of it, even cancelling the school appointments I’d made – and that was that,” she recalled.

So what do they learn? “Lessons start promptly at 9am, with the first hour taken up with the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Lee Grace. Then it’s off to the local sports centre for a gym club, where they meet up with other children.

“Afternoons vary between environmental studies, a ‘mad science’ session, nature studies, folk dancing, art club and pottery.”

It sounds a little free-form – what about tests and qualifications: those bits of paper that most of us see as a passport to a good job? Lee Grace thinks that the benefits of avoiding the pressure of exams outweigh any disadvantages. “We think confidence, security and happiness are of paramount importance in the early years,” she said. “If they want to do exams later on, they can, and most home-ed-ucated children do. Usually, they’ll focus on one or two subjects that they excel at; having eight or nine GCSEs is unnecessary if you know what you want to study at university.

“Universities tend to view these kids positively, in spite of their relative lack of formal qualifications, because of their self-motivation. Often, home-schooled kids find their ‘passion’ early and can follow it. . . they learn in more creative, spontaneous ways.”

It may surprise many to discover that if you decide to teach your children at home you don’t have to follow the national curriculum or put them in for Sats or GCSEs. All you have to do, according to government guide-lines issued last year, is provide a “suitable” education that prepares your child for life in a modern society.

It’s a definition so vague it’s almost meaningless. Although it’s the job of local councils to protect children who may be missing out on a proper education, they don’t have the legal powers to carry out spot checks on homes.

Smithers thinks ministers should legislate to ensure that home schooling regimes teach the national curriculum and are inspected just as schools are. “Parents feel they know best but parents often have a particular view of life. As a society we owe it to children to ensure they get the best possible introduction to their lives,” he said.

Back in Hampshire, Magorian has no doubt that she is doing the right thing in letting her child follow his nose. “I found I could give George the time to pursue his interests,” she said. At the age of 11, he became fascinated by Henry VIII: “And that led to Elizabeth I, and then I told him about an actor who lived at the same time and wrote plays.” Before you could say Caliban, they were on a train to the Globe theatre. “You couldn’t do that at school,” said Magorian.

Wonderful for George, perhaps, but is his mother, like other home-schooling parents, simply delaying that dreadful day when he will have to knuckle down, compete with others and follow a host of new rules – however tempting the sunshine?

The do’s and don’ts of teaching children at home

Education experts have some tips for parents who decide to turn teacher, writes Sian Griffiths.

Firstly, says education professor Alan Smithers, do make sure your children follow the national curriculum. Cooperate with other parents to enable them to work and make friends with others of a similar age. Enter them for the same tests they would have taken if they had been at school and take advantage of the flexibility of home-schooling to go on trips.

Don’t let children learn only when they feel like it or avoid subjects they don’t enjoy. Try to see them through a teacher’s eyes, not mum or dad’s rose-tinted spectacles. And don’t, whatever you do, says Smithers, try to teach them at home after the age of 11. For information and resources, visit or .

 PEN comment: Professor Smithers – shows he doesn’t understand home-based education. He continues to judge the experience against the very school paradigm many of the HBE community have actively decided to move away from. His mind is terminally fixed on the national curriculum and assessments. Perhaps if he shifted his horizon to the true outcomes of a successful education – those that relate to gaining useful work, positive contribution to society, good physical and mental health, absence of crime, happiness and contentment the penny would drop. Home-based learners are quite adept at deciding what they want to do and where they want work and careers to lead. They are also very adept at working towards and gaining the necessary qualifications and accrediations they need to puruse their dreams. They do it without the gross inefficiency  and superficiality of learning that is inflicted on schooled learners. Motivation and engagement is high because they are not coerced and compelled. They make their progress through self managing their learning and through a dialogoue with their families, friends and mentors who support and work with them. His comments calling for government powers to check and enforce the NC in home learning are frankly fascist. His comments suggesting many of the HBE will grow up isolated and struggling in adult life are ignorant of reality and alarming in the face of the massive fall out and casulaties of students (and teachers!) in the mainstream schooled sector. Professor Smithers may well know something about ‘schooling’ but sadly is still working towards level 1 in ‘education’. Perhaps he needs some extra homework, or specialist catch up programmes?! At the very least he ought to concentrate on putting education into schooling and really meeting the needs of learners, families and communities. One would of thought he would be delighted with the successes and growth of the HBE community. After all, they make no demands on education budgets (they’re incredibly commited, efficient and collaborative) and don’t add to the catalogue of fallout from the schooling system.

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